“A TIME TO PREPARE”
a message by Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Coral Isles Church, U.C.C.
November 26, 2023
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” 4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
This is an odd Sunday for preachers. Thanksgiving is past Advent doesn’t begin until next week. In church tradition it is called Christ the King Sunday. I’m not a big fan of that. I’m not sure calling Christ the King is very meaningful in today’s world. Maybe we can call this “The Sunday Before the Christmas Frenzy Begins.”
The Scripture this morning talks about preparing the way. Not just any way, but, “prepare the way of the Lord.” So let’s talk about what it means to prepare the way of the Lord. After church we are going to prepare the sanctuary for Advent and Christmas. The short description is we are going to decorate. Put up stuff. At home you may have already got the decorations out, or you may be waiting. Maybe you aren’t doing any decorating at all. We’ve got 90% of our decorations up at Villa de la Havens. Is that all “prepare ye the way of the Lord,” is about? I think Mark’s Gospel might have pointed in a bit different of a direction.
Mark’s Gospel was the first Gospel written according to scholars. If you didn’t notice, there is no “birth narrative.” There is nothing about Bethlehem, or shepherds or wise guys. There are angels but they come at the end of the passage we read, after Jesus has gone out into the wilderness to prepare himself for his public ministry. Mark begins by proclaiming that he is writing the good news about the Son of God, Jesus Christ. He says this is to fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah who called the people to prepare the way for the coming of YAHWEH. Without saying it, Mark says John, was the preparation. Mark says John was doing his thing, symbolically washing people of their sins, and telling them to turn their lives around. He was also telling people that another person was coming who was greater than him. This person was going to baptize them with something he called the Holy Spirit. Finally, after Jesus comes to John for a washing for his sins, Mark tells us Jesus had a vision. In his vision, Jesus saw this Spirit that John talks about coming down on him and Jesus hears a blessing from God: “you are my son, my beloved, with you I am delighted.” Then Jesus goes out into the wilderness. Mark says Jesus is tempted and in danger from “wild beasts.” The passage ends with the statement that angels waited on him. All this is like the foreword of a book or the prologue of a symphony.
Most of us have heard all this a hundred times maybe. We don’t really react to how strange this is. Every detail of it is foreign to our world experience, I would guess. Talk of wild religious experiences, visions and voices, we aren’t prepared for these things, I don’t imagine. How do we relate to this today? What are we prepared for? What should we be preparing for? What does it mean to prepare the way of the Lord, and really what does the coming of Jesus Christ mean to us today other than a fond, sentimental celebration of his birth 2000-plus years ago?
Maybe we think the key is preparing for a great holiday. Looking forward to family, love, all the Hallmark things. Maybe we are preparing for a time of loneliness, or even anxiety about next year, and all the “I don’t knows in life.” Big preparations, or small preparations can consume our lives and we look around and most of what we are preparing for never happens, or doesn’t happen the way we expected it to.
The good news that Mark writes about was world-changing. Right after our reading this morning Mark tells us that, “John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’” That is world changing. Or it should be shouldn’t it? Some kind of cosmic time has been completed, a new regime or ruler is present, it’s time to change directions and trust in a new, positive proclamation, apparently from God. How do we prepare for that? It’s mind-boggling.
So we have made it manageable. We have turned it into a seasonal celebration of lights and decorations. We have made it about spending too much money on stuff we don’t need, food and drink we shouldn’t consume, and at the end of it all we clean up, we pay the Visa bill, and nothing really changes, does it? Well, thank you Ebenezer for your gloomy bah-humbug, huh? Not really what I mean to do, but just saying, what the Gospel proclaims is so wild, so amazing, so world-changing I don’t think we can process it fully. And when you get down to it, has anything changed in the last 2000 years? Sure, technology has changed. But have people changed? Is there any more love, any more peace, any more justice? Did they prepare back then and then when the Jesus-thing got shut down by the religious and political powers, did God fail?
To be honest I can’t answer that. Not truthfully. Faith tells me God did not fail, that maybe what we thought we were preparing for wasn’t what Jesus came to do. Despite my depressing sermon, [ so far ], I want to pivot and talk about hope. I think what we need to prepare for is a reason to hope. And I think hope has the power to change the world.
The next four Sundays we call Advent. Advent is Latin for “coming” or shorthand for “the One who Comes.” Of course, it is referring to Jesus Christ. The church has each Sunday a “theme.” They are “hope,” “peace,” “joy,” and “love.” Next Sunday is the real first Sunday in Advent and we are doing our best to prepare for the “coming of the Christ” by sharing the Christian meanings for some of the decorations we put up. I don’t preach next Sunday, so if you want come to worship without listening to me blathering on, next Sunday is your best chance, except when I am on vacation. That means this Sunday is my best chance to talk about hope. So far I haven’t been very helpful on that count have I?
So if Advent is about preparation, and “hope” is the beginning for any preparation for something better, let’s figure out what hope means for us today. As I thought about this I began to believe the key is the difference between wishing and hoping. I wish God would wave a magic wand and change everything for the better. I wish everyone was loving because I believe that would mean no one would suffer from hunger, poverty, injustice, or other human caused problems. I wish God made us all perfect, without sin. But the smarter folks point out that if we were all made perfect then we would not be truly free. And authentic love can never be anything but a free choice. I think the whole point of life is to love, to love God and love others. If that isn’t something I choose to do freely, then it isn’t really love, and I am not really free. I may be a robot, or a creation of artificial intelligence but it appears to me God created love to be a free choice, not a controlled reaction.
So instead of wishing so much, I want to start hoping more. I believe that when we hope, we will pray, because I believe when we pray, I believe God will show us how we can change to be more loving. See, I think the point of prayer isn’t to change other things, as much as it is to change me. In prayer I often recognize my wishful thinking, my selfish ambitions, and other ways I need to change. I often see my need to take a different path in my life or relationships. In prayer hope helps me discover ways I need to change, more than I need God to change others. And hope allows me the faith that I can become more loving. And, who knows, if I can become more loving then maybe so can you, and so can others, and maybe when enough people change to be loving then the vision that Jesus had will come about.
Hope lives when we believe we can change. Hope lives when we imagine a world where the things we can change are changed. The wonderful good news is that in the birth and life of Jesus we believe we can see God came as a human being. That human being, Jesus of Nazareth showed us what the love of God can do. God came as a human being to show us the power we have to be loving towards others. If God just waved a magic wand to change everything I suspect we humans would somehow become dissatisfied and begin hoping for something else.
My hope is that Mark’s words will be fulfilled, and soon. That the Reign of God’s perfect, unconditional love will come near enough to lead people to change. And my hope is that change will lead to a new world. Maybe Christmas is a kind of sneak peak at what the world could be. For me the words of our last song capture what I hope for. It is to the tune you may know as “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.” But it speaks of a hope for a world that can only be achieved when we all live in the spirit of God’s love. Listen to these words before we sing them together:
O for a world where everyone / respects each other’s ways
Where love is lived and all is done / With justice and with praise
O for a world where goods are shared / And misery relieved
Where truth is spoken / Child-ren spared, equality achieved
O for a world pre-paring for / God’s glor- ious reign of peace
Where time and tears will be no more / And all but love will cease.
As this Advent season begins, these are the things I hope for.I hope you will join me, not only in hoping for these things, but in working to be these things in life and to work for the world to become this way wherever and however we can. I hope.AMEN.